Ms. Purple is an intimate story of self-actualization
At the heart of Ms. Purple is a conflict that takes center stage in the lives of many women: being the sole caretaker of a loved one at the expense of her own needs. Just like real life, there are other complicated factors that play into Kasie’s (Tiffany Chu) choices, chief among them, is that she will not be her mother. She will not abandon her dying father like she and her brother Carey (Teddy Lee) were abandoned by their mother. What results is an intimate portrait of a broken family and a woman who takes the first steps to living a life that’s for her alone.
When we meet Kasie she is a young girl. Her father is getting her ready to see someone. She’s in a traditional Korean dress, purple in color, and she looks sad, even as her father tells her how beautiful she looks. This is not a meeting Kasie wants to have. In real time, we see Kasie diligently take care of her comatose father. When she is working at her job in a karaoke parlor in Koreantown, L.A., she makes sure her father is cared for by a home aide. These are the events that dictate her life. Work, home, caring for her father. It’s a hard life, and one that grants her little space for her own desires. Even at work, she is at the mercy of the men that pay her to pour drinks and laugh at their jokes. We are instantly hurting for Kasie, as she begs her home nurse to stay on one more day so she can find another arrangement. The nurse’s advice? Put him in hospice. It’s an easy solution, and money may not even be an issue as the nurse has promised to help get her father into the facility where she works. But Kasie refuses. It takes time, but we soon find out why that little girl was so sad in that purple dress. It’s the reason she won’t leave him now.
Kasie’s story gets bleaker before it gets better, but one bright spot is the return of her estranged brother Carey, who ran away at 15. He agrees to help with their father, since, quite frankly, he has nothing better on his horizon. At first it seems he takes his task seriously, even rolling his father’s bed outside so he can get some sun. His interactions with Kasie are genuine. They don’t necessarily have a close relationship, but because their camaraderie is tied to a trauma they both share, there is little maintenance required. He knows her life is hard, he knows he has been and continues to be of little help. But his being there brings a gentle flame back into Kasie’s life, at least for a little while. The relationship they share helps to bring to light the different ways siblings are affected by the same traumatic event. Although Kasie is the one pulling the weight of this family, it’s hard to be mad at Carey’s shortcomings. Both are hurting, both need each other, and one day, they will be able to reach across the void.
The strength of Ms. Purple is without a doubt the performance of Tiffany Chu. She embodies Kasie so deeply it’s hard to separate the fiction from reality. She is a woman devoid of a sense of self because she is in service to others. Her chemistry with co-star Teddy Lee is also endearing, the way the two fall into an awkward ease with each other, and are able to goof around despite what’s happening around them. And director/co-writer Justin Chon’s filmmaking showcases these performances brilliantly. There’s a moment when Kasie asks Carey if he knows what she does for a living. It’s such an intimate moment wrought with sadness and strength that both Chu and Lee play to perfection. There are a lot of moments like that, and they carry the emotional core of the film.
When Kasie makes the choice to stop being made-up and presented, whether all those years ago to her mother, or to the men she now entertains, it’s a joy to see her strength used for herself. When Octavio, a potential love interest, first invites Kasie to his sister’s Quinceanera, she writes it and him off. She doesn’t have time for men she selects herself. But after defending a fellow parlor worker, she goes to the party and laughs and dances with Octavio’s family. Her hair is a mess, her face is bruised and cut, she is not in a pretty purple dress picked out by her father, or bought for her by a client, to gain someone’s acceptance. She is accepted as she is now, battle-worn, and beautiful, to hopefully start a new life all her own.
Ms. Purple opens in Philly theaters today.